Treating And Preventing Ingrown Toenails

Dr. Jordan Metzl discusses the symptoms of ingrown toenails, and provides advice on treating and preventing the troublesome foot pain.

Photo: Zdenka Darula

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Dr. Jordan Metzl discusses the symptoms of ingrown toenails, and provides advice on treating and preventing the troublesome foot pain.

The Symptoms

Pain, sometimes worse than just annoying, where the toenail has grown into the skin around it. The entire area is usually red and tender to the touch.

What’s Going On In There?

Ingrown nails typically start when 
a nail, usually the one on the big toe, grows or is pushed into the soft, tender tissue alongside it. People whose toes are somewhat convex are more susceptible, but anyone can
 get one. Athletes who spend a lot of time in tight shoes or who put a lot 
of pressure on their toes with explosive movements are prime candidates for ingrown nails.

While they arise mostly as the result of improper cutting, ingrown nails can also be caused by any number of accidents or heavy use, such as in long-distance running. Stubbing your toe can also cause them, as can dropping a heavy object on your toe.

It’s important to address ingrown nails quickly. Trying to ignore them will only lead to more pain while running, changing direction or jumping—basically, all the things an athlete needs his or her feet for. If the area becomes infected, you’ll have a serious problem. But most ingrown nails can be taken care of with the home-based remedies listed here.

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Fix It

Try an over-the-counter product. Many products will help soften the skin and the nail, and many of them have a soothing anti-inflammatory agent like tea tree oil or menthol. Dr. Scholl’s Ingrown Toenail Pain Reliever and Outgro Pain Relieving Liquid are examples. Read and follow the directions to the letter, and don’t use these types of products if you have diabetes, impaired circulation or any kind of infection.

Use cotton. The ultimate solution is to have the toenail eventually grow out over the skin folds at its side. Start by soaking your foot in warm water for 5 to 10 minutes to soften the nail (add 1 teaspoon of salt for every pint of water). Dry it, then gently insert a wisp (not a wad) of sterile cotton beneath the burrowing edge of the nail. The cotton will lift the nail slightly so it will grow past the sore skin. Apply an antiseptic over the cotton as well to guard against infection. Change the cotton daily until the nail grows out.

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Prevent It

Cut nails with precision. Never cut your nails too short. Cut straight across with a sharp, substantial straight-edged clipper. Never cut a nail in an oval shape that causes the leading edge to curve down into the skin at the sides.

Buy the right shoes. Tight shoes, especially around the toes, can help cause ingrown nails. This applies to casual and athletic footwear. When shopping for shoes, remember the following tips: Shop in the afternoon or evening, when your feet are at their largest, and wear athletic socks to get a proper fit. If ingrown nails are a chronic problem for you, wear wide-toed or open-toed shoes when you can.

Forget the V. Don’t fall for the old wives’ tale about cutting a V-shaped wedge in the middle of the nail’s top edge. The thinking is that the sides will grow toward the open center and away from the ingrown edge. Not true. All nails grow outward from the base.

When To Call A Doctor

If your toe becomes infected, you need to see a doctor. Signs to look for include swelling, redness, pain and warmth when touched. Pus-filled blisters may also form. The doctor will most likely treat your infection with soaks, removal of infected skin and antibiotics.

More medical advice from Dr. Jordan Metzl.

New York City sports medicine specialist Jordan D. Metzl, M.D. is a 29-time marathon finisher and 10-time Ironman. His book, The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies, has more than 1,000 tips to fix all types of injuries and medical conditions.

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